The Big Question: no sentence is complete without one, yet they are often taken for granted. Julian Barnes, Claire Messud, Ali Smith and other writers pick their favourite. First, a very short history, by Rosie Blau

The question mark, said Gertrude Stein, is “positively revolting”. She thought the exclamation mark was “ugly” and “unnecessary” too. Cormac McCarthy shuns the semi-colon and quotation marks. At times James Joyce avoided even commas. Good prose is greeted with loud applause, but good punctuation draws attention to itself only when done badly, rather like goalkeeping.

In the beginning was the word, and each word was without spaces from one to the next. No wonder stone carvers didn’t write novels. A librarian at Alexandria in the third century BC is credited with being the first to use a system of high, intermediate and subordinate dots to instruct readers to pause and breathe—early punctuation was intended to help us with reading aloud; the silent reader came later. Much of it still does that job. Brackets are for a muttered aside; question marks denote inflection as much as interrogation. A few marks, the apostrophe and ampersand among them, stand in for something more long-winded.

Iron rules now govern the use of punctuation, but its early history was less regimented. Inverted commas, which started life in the second century BC in the margins of the text they referred to, took nearly two millennia to migrate to framing the speech they recorded. Though their function is now uniform across most languages, English, French and Chinese each use different symbols to signify the same thing. Some marks have largely died out, such as the pilcrow that once defined paragraphs within compact text. Others, like the interrobang, a 20th-century invention intended to convey a mixture of surprise and doubt, never found their way into the canon.

Arabic commas point the other way from English ones and are written on top of the line; the question mark faces the other way too, and is fatter than ours. Chinese uses a distinct pause mark for lists, a short backwards comma, and draws a full stop as a small circle. Where most tongues deposit a question or exclamation mark only at the end of a sentence, Spanish deploys them like bookends, so the clause begins with an upside-down one.

These strange little squiggles can provoke strong passions, as our six contributors show. With such a small pool to choose from, it is not their choices that are striking, so much as the reasons behind them. It would have been nice to hear a hymn of praise to every member of this select club. But even rhapsodies about punctuation must eventually come to a .